MICHAEL W. THOMAS - TICKLE, TICKLE
I have this world. Slip into it when I want to. I’ve no idea how and I can’t remember when I found it. I imagine it behind the bookcase near the bed, open all hours as the saying goes. So I can get there in a jiffy. Out from under the covers, quick slide over the books and there I am. The seasons are faithful there, stay put like they should. Always late summer when I’m outside that old church with the wall full of ivy. Winter when I stand at the gate to that huge wide field and step forward, just a little way, no further. The gate’s never shut as far as I know. Held open, it is, by something in a sack. Could be big stones, though I think I’ve spotted a screw-cap. A can, then, full of stuff that you need on a farm but has gone out of date. Not oil or petrol, I’d say. Think of the risk, however long it’s been standing. Even I wouldn’t do something as daft as that, leave flammables out in the open, and I’ve been daft enough in my time.
I’m there a lot, at the gate, in winter. Always arrive just as the first snow falls. The flakes dip about like butterflies over the grey earth, then the earth sucks them in. Who knows, they might have been real butterflies once, they might have flown to the field from the grasses round that old church. I couldn’t say. Actually, it’d have to be further back than late summer for butterflies. Wouldn’t it? And I’m never outside the church before the last of August.
But the field’s my favourite. Me off down behind the bookcase, standing by the sack. Silence. Bit of wind sometimes, though, bit of a creak from the latch-end of the gate. And somewhere far away, his nibs, turning a little in his sleep, flinging out an arm, muttering though he swears he doesn’t. Because I’m there too, of course, beside him, even when I’m not.
I say I have this world. Had, really. But I might again.
Fatal, maybe, saying about the field and the church to Trish. But that’s Friday evenings for you, the extra bottle, the two-for-one job, the shame-to-waste-it looks going back and forth. Like it wouldn’t keep. But I told her and she said it was fantastic, I should write it down. I didn’t want to write it down. I was scared that if I did it’d vanish, I’d lose my sense of it, it’d be like pushing a pin through one of those off-season butterflies, watching it crumble in a glass case. That’s how I felt then, anyway, so I mumbled something, the usual, not one for words, not fussed about writing in school. Anyway, they’re not about words, the field, the old church, the gate and the ivy. They’re about being there, knowing they’re there even if you close your eyes, especially when you do, maybe.
Fair’s fair, Trish didn’t press it, that’s not her way, bless her. If she thinks she’s buttonholing she steps back, says something more general, so you don’t feel on the spot. The buttonholing is still in there, I suppose, but it’s, you know, tucked in, part of her wider tack. I knew what was coming. She cracks open the two-for-one bottle, the one we didn’t need except it was Friday evening, what the hell, and says ok, but I should still come along, I’d really enjoy it.
I read. Easy reads, mostly, some would call them. Thrillers are a big thing but the old-fashioned kind, country house weekends, murders in Mayfair, detectives stuffing pipes or knocking them out on their shoes. Not the modern ones, the strong meat stuff, set in Swedish wasteland as likely as not. If I see adverts for them on platforms, I start shivering, not just because of what’s probably inside them but because of the feel they give off. Hot day in mid-July and those ads can still make me feel like I’m stuck in my own fridge. The snow on my field, that’s quite different. A friendly cold and much of the time I hardly notice it.
Sometimes, too, I’ll have a yen for something seasonal. Christmas I’ll have a go at one of Dickens’ stories. Summer, Laurie Lee. I’ve even dipped into a poem or two at Easter. Devotional, you’d say, certainly old, sixteen-hundreds. Is that sixteenth century? I always have to think when I try and match those up, the century, the hundreds. Gives me a funny feeling, reading them. I don’t understand a lot about them but I imagine standing behind the poet, quiet-like so as not to disturb, while he’s writing and crossing out, trying again, getting it right. I can almost hear Aha! when that happens, hear the quill, I suppose it’d be, going mad across that dusty paper. Some people say they admire such-and-such when what they mean is, I’ve less than half a clue what it’s about but there it is, it’s finished and complete, someone put in the time on it. I suppose that’s how I admire the Easter folk, the scratchers and crossers-out. They wanted to get somewhere, writing. Like I love arriving at that open gate.
I never figured Trish for a reader. Well, it doesn’t come up on Friday nights. Indirectly, maybe, sometimes. She might ask if I’ve seen such-and-such on TV and I might say, that was a book, I think, to start with, and more often than not she just does that thing people sometimes do with a glass to their lips, a flick of the head to say, well, fancy, and then back to what Friday nights are for. Loves song lyrics, though, Trish. Fastens onto what she likes and can’t understand it if you don’t. Loves classic stuff. Roy Orbison, In Dreams. Had it played at her wedding, even though I said, and I wasn’t alone, look, it doesn’t work out well, that song, there’s no woman there with him, no dream-girl come true. She said it didn’t matter, and anyway, there is because he’s thinking of her, singing of her, making her real. Life isn’t always how it appears, she says, even in a song. Procol Harum, A Whiter Shade of Pale, that’s another big fave and, all right, it’s pleasant but don’t tell me the words mean a thing. She won’t have that. Poetry, she says it is, though it’s about as far as you can throw from what my quill-merchants ever came up with.
Maybe that was what did it. Her idea of what poetry is, plus her never-ending hunt for groups and clubs, which I can’t blame her for, her bloke being all sorted and scheduled with his interests, hence the Friday evenings, the bottles of two-for-one. Anyway, she saw a notice, might have been in a supermarket entrance, even a library, who knows, somewhere with stuff about adult courses, volunteering, self-help. This bunch of writers, alternate Wednesdays, centre of town, an old hall, I know the place, just about keeping on its feet with ping-pong and old-time dance, talks on this and that. So off she trots. She’s been a few times. Awoken her, she says it has. Surprised her. Surprised me, a word like awoken on her lips. Started writing poems and found she was full of them. So yes, I daresay all those song lyrics made her think she’d have a go at scratching and crossing out and trying again, if she does all that, if they don’t just pop up, which by the sound of it they do. You should come along, says she again, the Friday after she first said it, or maybe the one after that, with the bottle on the tilt and that broad happy grin. You’d love it, she says. I had tried asking to hear one of her poems, even part of one. I mean it’s great that she’s found this in herself, all power to her. But she wouldn’t, not even helped by the far end of the second bottle. Then it was, okay, you’ll hear if you come along. I should have expected that, probably did. She wouldn’t want me not to hear but now she had this gentle Friday-night leverage. I know her of old.
Finally I did go, sort of. We’d arranged a drink in town for when she was done so I just slipped in the back at the end and waited. I’d never been in there before though I must have passed it scores of times. Dismal old place, it is. You’d need to be drunk on words. Kind of place that, as soon as you go in, you think it must have started raining, you wait for the spatter on the panes. Bit of a stage at one end, fol-de-rols either side, leftovers from some jubilee, Victoria’s, I shouldn’t wonder. Door on the left into one of those kitchens that doesn’t want you to bother with it.
I said I slipped in at the end. Another bit of Trish mischief. Six-thirty to eight, she said, but it was gone eight-thirty when it broke up, I had words later, teasing really but still. So I found myself sitting through the three last turns. An old chap in a paisley cravat read a bit from his memoir. He was nice, a looker in his time, I’d say, only his face was thin and collapsed now, his voice wavered and he sometimes had a rest-up in the middle of a word. A work-in-progress, he called it, and by the look of him I’d say it was a race between the two of them. The bit he read was about Dauntless Dougie, an uncle I think, or godfather, a padre in a war, the First I suppose, though I didn’t recognise any of the place names he mentioned but maybe it was the way he said them. Bit of a character, Dougie. Got the men to pray with him in little groups and then slipped them big goes of rum from his secret store. Told them a nip of that on Calvary and Christ would have been down from the cross and making short work of the guards, which isn’t the kind of message you expect from a man of the cloth or, come to that, his nephew or godson in the kind of hall Christ might just rush into. Then it was Trish and I have to say, she was good. Poem about finding herself following an old lady round the supermarket aisles, just coincidentally, watching what she dropped into her basket and picturing what the things said about her, where she’d come from, where she’d go after the check-out. A Life In Perishables, she called it and it didn’t rhyme, which was a surprise, what with her and Roy Orbison and Procul Harum and what-have-you. Last up was a young girl with what she called a dialogue of trespass, between her and the wounds of self-harm. Everyone got a bit uncomfortable at that. The motherly-looking sort next to her kept furtively looking her over as she read, trying to see if it was autobiographical, I suppose. But she didn’t seem the type. Blonde hair and drape-y blouse. Could have done with a square meal but nothing strung out about her, as you might say. But then, what is the type? The motherly sort, who looked and sounded like she led the group, asked her straight up once she’d finished, but the girl said no, it came out of things she’d read, a documentary she’d seen. She didn’t talk like round here. Student, I thought, which was half-right because Trish said later she’d started and abandoned a degree, which is more than I’ve ever abandoned. Rolled that one round her tongue, Trish did – abandoned. Like awoken. It was funny, really, seeing your best friend in a new place and saying things in a new way, like half of you is rooting for her and the other half doesn’t know her at all. ‘In go the peas,’ her poem about the old woman said, ‘and she’s back at the long, long trestles in a Wiltshire street, tee-bar sandals and diluted squash and cheering and Churchill all over the air.’ Sight better than sixteen vestal virgins hoofing off for the coast.
When they broke up I headed for Trish with my cod-daggers look. Finish at eight on the dot, my eye. That’s when I saw a figure on the far side of the hall. Waiting for someone else, I assumed, apart from which, I had to admire his brass neck. Togged up like the cravat gentleman might have been when he chatted with Dauntless Dougie way back when. I thought he might have been a manager of one of those retro shops, ration-book chic from war-torn Blighty. I couldn’t see his face but that was no surprise. Probably less than a half-dozen lights in the place and three of them were round the writers’ table. But he didn’t come to claim anyone and after I’d got to the table and Trish had done that blurry introductions bit, all those names and no hope of remembering, I looked round and he’d gone.
Fair do’s, Trish didn’t announce that I wanted to join. But naturally, when we were in the bar, she asked what I thought of it, meaning her. To which I asked who the hand-me-down bloke was hanging about in the gloaming and she said what bloke? Oh well, I said, never mind, and he got lost in the chat, me telling her how impressed I was with her poem, her raising an eyebrow and saying, well, how about coming for the whole thing next time, then me raising my glass and assuring her I’d need several of these inside me to so much as consider it, and her laughing and the chat going elsewhere.
Only on the bus home did the bloke come back into my mind. I wondered if there was some themed thing on after the writers, a charity-shop jamboree, and he was early for that. I’d have thought it was pushing it, squeezing another event in that evening. Then again, hall like that, they need all sorts in, maybe even get special late licences. It has to keep going somehow. One of those jumpers the bloke was wearing, greyish, different colour edging to the vee. Dad used to wear something like, no shape to them at all, mum was always on at him to get rid of them, so he would, well, get rid of one, but another one just the same would take its place. Odd, really. She always took him clothes-shopping so he must have got them on the quiet to snape her. I wondered if they were made ready-shapeless, like drip-dry. Georgie and me, we’d dig each other’s ribs when he came to the table in the latest, then mum would get in between him and us, leaning extra low to put out the food, mouthing at us to shut our yap before it started, but you could tell that she was quivering, you could see her twinkle, how she swallowed the laughs I’ll never know, except I do, all composure she was. Later on I imagined her taking herself off now and then to somewhere quiet, a forest or something, so she could spend the whole day hooting her socks off at a lifetime’s idiocy from dad.
It’s about fifty yards. You get off the bus, into our avenue, the Bartons first on the left with that saggy side-fence they’ll never replace no matter what they keep saying, then us. Always someone about, a neighbour, dog-walker, but that night there could have been a cast of thousands and it wouldn’t have made a peck of difference. Something was at me as I got off the bus. Behind me? Around me? All I know is, I legged it like a greyhound, straight round the side of the house, too, no faffing with the front door because I knew he’d be up and the back door’d be open. Just at the back I stopped, thought of mum, got myself composed. Listened. Nothing. I wondered if the drink had got to me, cheaper than usual that night it was, probably a dodgy off-load, nothing to do with special midweek offers. Of course he didn’t notice anything. I love him dearly but, if shapeless vee-necks were still the thing…it took me a dog’s age to wean him off those sky-blue tracky bottoms. Superior lounge-wear, the sales bloke had told him. Those folk, they see him coming.
That night I got myself to my open gate. Stole away upon the midnight, I suppose I’d say if I was a quill-merchant or even, maybe, in one of Trish’s poems. The gate was shut and the sack was gone. The field looked as though some giant badgers had been at it, heaps here, gouges there. The snow-butterflies came dipping and weaving but they didn’t fade into the earth as normal. A blizzard came on, proper fierce, fistfuls of it, and swallowed them up. And the cold…nothing friendly about that, not like I knew before. I felt like a human thermometer with the mercury plunging, I felt like I’d been thrown in the sea on New Year’s Eve. Shook my arms and legs, not a ha’porth of difference. I stepped back and nearly went over on an ankle: another deep hole, must have opened up while I was standing there, and the sack that should have propped the gate open was half-buried in it. Stuff this, I thought, where’s August, where’s my old church? But it was snowing there, too, back-end of summer covered in white and the ivy had been half-dragged off the church wall and the wall was skewed fit to tumble. And never a leaf on all the trees in the churchyard, no, just one clump on one branch, and a little bird dancing this way and that, trying to stay hidden behind the clump like the snow had made it too scared to fly and all it could do was hop and let its wings go useless.
What could I do but get away? I tried to cry myself to sleep and I might have got an hour. The rest was him twisting, muttering. I got a shove to the back of the head at one point. I remembered the girl from the writing group, the student as was with all that chat, her and her self-harm going back and forth. A dialogue of trespass, she’d called the thing. I felt I’d turned into a trespasser in my own world, except maybe it wasn’t mine, never had been, and I was like a kid who could play somewhere only because no-one notices, because everyone’s forgotten wherever it is, till they remember and move in with their big signs, their fences, their snow, and shoo the kid off. But no…this was my world, just as it was, you might say, the kid’s proper place. Finders keepers. But that hadn’t stopped something from being what it was and doing what it did. Because apparently it could.
Couple of days after I was late home. Customer looking for some special turmeric they’d heard we’d just got in but could I find it? Could I find any of the spices and stuff? That’s that new manager, can’t be more than fourteen, head full of changes, must have got the night-stackers to switch everything around on the dry food aisles just for the hell of it, and of course a queue as long as your arm when I got back and Julie hopping about too, waiting to take over the till and then of course she forgets her code and the person after the turmeric says, actually, this isn’t really what I want so I spit invisible nails while I’m seeing to his other stuff and then his phone goes and he paces about while his stuff piles up on the chute and then it’s, actually, do you have a couple of bags? So I sort him out and see him off by which time Maureen’s poled up with Julie’s code so that’s all right at least and I go sloping off with the turmeric and find I can’t find where I found it till that nice new woman on the deli counter comes out and helps and we locate its context as that kid of a manager would say and then when the deli woman gets back she finds she’s got a queue out the door and her weigh scales won’t display properly but luckily Maureen’s just dealt with someone at the express counter shouting the odds about a lottery ticket he’d bought last week and the express is just round the corner from the deli so she nips out and gets the deli woman sorted, honestly, Maureen should be running the whole place not some toddler brought in over everyone’s heads.
So it was gone six-thirty when I got through the door and he says Mrs Barton’s been round. So I thought, oh, right, they’re seeing to that fence at last, want us to move our stuff away from the boundary, in which case why hasn’t he done it? Fifteen, twenty minutes’ work? Alright, it was getting dark but everything looked to be where it was when I came in and him working at home that afternoon, phoning and computing and insuring away. Flexi-schedule, he’s got, which is all very nice but sometimes I could flex his neck, dishes still piled up from our breakfast and his lunch, stuff still lying about. Just occasionally he’ll have a mad tidy-up like one day’s heavy industry is quite enough for the whole month.
But it wasn’t that. On the hall table, he says, adding that I was lucky, Mrs B was just going out that morning, a couple more minutes and they’d have taken it back to the depot, which is the other side of town, car or two buses. No card through our door, mind, telling us. And the Bartons might have been busy for days or put it down somewhere and clean forgotten, and I’m not hot on telepathy, nor is he, however much he can make his numbers dance on his screen. Bulky, it was, properly padded, a row of stamps, maple leaf here, profile of Queenie there, Charlottetown postcode on a white strip, with ‘Prince Edward Island: Canada’s Ocean Playground.’ Our address all neat on the front, sender’s address all neat in the top left corner. Always partic about her writing, Georgie. Well, she married someone with a partic life, flight lieutenant on some exchange thing at Brize Norton, draughtsman originally, then re-trained after he’d whisked her away over the water and finished his time, went into landscaping and cabin design, well, they’re big on all that over there, they’ve got the space. And it is lovely, where they are. Anne of Green Gumboils, Georgie calls herself, says her eldest coined it, well on the way, he is, just finished whatever they have to do, articling and such, and got snapped up by a law firm in Ottawa. Makes up for their girl, I suppose, though, God bless her, she can’t help it, who knows what demons can get in your head? Has her own little place at the back of their house, goes out with her mum now and then but that’s about it.
Mind you, our Christopher looked to be going that way in his last year at uni but then the exams came and went and he turned himself right side out again, which was a mercy, though that’s not what his sister said. Too much of those dates and battles and kings and priests, she says, enough to send anyone off the deep end, he needs to get back in the now, she says, be a grown-up. It’s West Hampstead, mum, she kept telling me, Borough of Camden, all because I told folk it was Camden Town when she moved. Wash my mouth out. Town-house, she calls it. You could fit three of them into ours, just about, and ours is no palace. Something in management, she is, which could mean anything from director of Selfridge’s to what Maureen does at our place. Human-facing, apparently. She and our kid of a manager would get on no messing. Never goes into details, likes to keep it impressively mysterious. Hang ‘Em Flog ‘Em Rachel, his nibs calls her. Don’t you ever let her hear you saying that, I tell him, though of course he’s the only one who could get away with it, with his little chuckle and nod of the head.
The sad thing is, though, she’d probably grin and look all cat-with-cream if he said it. I don’t know what’s happened. She’s just gone very hard and I don’t know why, it isn’t as if she’s had any more knocks than most as far as I know. Marriage is out, she’s said so. Flings, I think she has, nothing that lasts, a few weeks, a couple of months and pfff, it’s over. She seems to take pleasure in that, like making best friends in school just to duff them up. Brought a couple of victims here for visits, nice lads, he took to them, up the pub and that, but she laid out the eggshells round them, slightest thing and she bit off their heads. Maybe that’s what you’ve got to be seen to do in human-facing management. No way to live, taking your work home like that. Laughed like a drain when I told her our Chris was going on to a Master’s, all funded, mind, some History council or group or something, well, he’s bright. What, she says, he’s putting himself in for more punishment? Has to go down to London now and then, he does, British Library, archives and that. Phones her for a drink. Never convenient.
I thought I’d scan these and email them to Brainiac – Georgie’s time-honoured name for his nibs – but that’s not the same. They’re all copies and I’ve been promising. I still don’t know how I ended up with most of them. I was thinking we could divvy them up last time you were here but I guess the trip down to Nova Scotia put paid to that sister-time we’d been hoping for. Then I just forgot and you seemed easy either way about it. But finally I told myself, this is no good, so I freed up some time – Richie was away on a job over to Cape Breton – and I hope you like the result. Say hi to Brainiac for me, give that Chris a huge aunty-hug and tell Rachel I hope some prime catch sweeps her off her feet before she can open her mouth. Just kidding, kind of. Miss you everso, Helen. Get yourselves back over here. Love and love, the Gumboil One xxxxxx. PS. Crazy no-shape jumpers galore inside. See how many you can count.
The album was really plush, and Georgie had gone to town on the packing, not a dent anywhere. All nicely presented inside, that sticky plastic smoothed down over each photo, I can never manage that, the ruckle queen, me, or I couldn’t when I had actual photos, he saves everything on files and disks now, keeps promising to get hard copies done, dream on, I tell myself, dream on. Chronological, too, by the looks of it, soup to nuts as Richie the cabin-man would say. But I didn’t have time then for a good shufti, it was Friday evening and I needed to have a bite and change or Trish’d be sending out the bloodhounds. I phoned her to say I’d be running late and she said if I’m not completely starving don’t worry, she’d got enough for a scrumptious party-tea, which sounds like it’ll pitch up in one of her poems if it hasn’t already, so I splashed a bit of water here and there and got on some comfy old mis-matches and, hoopla, his nibs said he’d give me a lift over and taxi fare back and it didn’t even cross my mind to say, alright, who is she? We were just reversing when I remembered and leapt out and grabbed that wine off the kitchen counter, our kid of a manager’s choice for some autumn promotion, and it’s pretty good, a tasty Australian red, Vasse something, with a bouquet that does all sorts, not that it dawdles in my mouth long enough to oblige, Trish’s neither, still, fair do’s to the toddler for choosing it, maybe he’s not completely useless Eustace.
And Trish had a red to match and I can’t fault her party-tea, so it was a happy evening after all the turmeric kerfuffle. I think I might have even said I’d go along to her next writers’ do without her having to do her grin and top-up routine. Never crossed my mind, my churned up field or my churchyard with that little bird scared to death among the bare branches. Or that bloke all shadowy at the side of that cave of a hall. At some point I think I pictured myself turning the pages of Georgie’s special album one by one, finding what she’d put where, seeing it all in right order. But yet another top-up must have carried that away.
Saturday’s his training. Well, not his but the shivering bunch in the youth team that he’s assistant coach for. Been doing it for years, though he could barely run twenty yards now to make a useful delivery or collection or whatever those herberts call them on the Saturday night tv round-up. Mind you, he admits it. I’ve met the coach, northerner, played for Accrington Stanley back in the day or nearly did, or his brother did and he was in the reserves, his nibs gave me chapter and verse but it slid off as quick as a mouthful of that Vasse. Hot on the offside rule, apparently, the coach, which probably means about as hot as my determination not to understand it.
So, house to myself and the Saturday morning ritual, phone call to Chris, who sounded under par, to be honest, though over the years I’ve weaned myself off the third degree about proper food and exercise and giving his eyes a rest. Nice flat he’s got himself, right near the Bristol campus, sharing with an Indian lad, physics or maths, I can’t remember, Naagpal, only Chris calls him Nag which is a bit disrespectful but he’s a whiz with the food, his nibs and me, we eat like royalty when we visit, so you’re Nag, I said, first time we met him, well I hope you’re nagging him to stay off the burgers and chips, and Nag, Nagpaal I really should say, he laughs fit to burst and says please be assured so, he talks so nice, better than most English people, better than me. Then Rachel, which of course was just the answerphone, well, who’d know where she was and who with, so I left the usual, all well here, hope you are too, phone when you can, love from us. His nibs keeps threatening to leave her a message all spooky-foreign, Rachel, thees ees your consheeience speeeking, wish he would, she’d phone back like a shot and tick him off in that giggly way she has, like I say, he can get away with stuff. She does phone, once in a while, between important things, all breathless and sorry-gotta-go, usually to tip us off about a forthcoming northern progress, as he calls it. I suggested we should just go down sometime, unannounced, but he gave me an on-your-head-be-it look. I just hope she never has another conquest in tow so I don’t have to feel what the poor bloke’s going through.
After all that, a cuppa and the album. Wine-red, the cover, which tied in nicely with last night at Trish’s. And there it all was as I turned the pages, me and Georgie from when we were kids, and mum and dad and cousins and uncles and aunts and best friends and Christmases and holidays and rubbish hairstyles and clothes, ours as much as anyone’s. At one point I stopped and looked over Georgie’s note and thought a bit but I couldn’t remember either how she’d ended up with all these photos, two of each into the bargain. Mind you, she did come back to help with the house after mum and dad passed, dad then mum that is, about a year between, but I was focused on the bigger stuff, probate and such, putting the house on the market, well, I was local so it made sense. So stuff like photos, non-probate, so to speak, I didn’t pay much attention to. Like she said, I must have been easy either way about things like that, and she’d brought a couple of whopping suitcases and hardly any clothes and I could imagine Richie and her kids, no, not them, they’d have been far too young at the time, I could imagine Richie telling her that he wanted a real feel for her life before they met, well, they’re big on all that over there, where people come from, loved ones or the last generation or the one before that, all that interest in the old country, whichever one it happens to be, and he’d said to me once, us and the Americans, we’re all orphans when you get down to it. Anything you can bring back, I could imagine him saying, I’d love it. Dearly love it, that’s his phrase, beautiful voice he has.
It was funny, going page by page, I mean nice-funny not odd, or I suppose I do. A life coming back like a trick of invisible ink, oh, look, that’s what it says here, that’s what it says there. It’s not the whole story, I know that, but I felt tempted more than once to close the album and lift it on the palms of my hands and say, here’s me as was, I’m as red as that Vasse Trish and me made short work of and I’m this wide and this deep. I could have thought, blimey, is this it? but the trouble Georgie had gone to ruled that out because her tidiness was really saying, look, it was all worth taking care of.
Each photo had a neat little sticker. I could remember the details in bits and bobs but not how she’d managed it, if she’d remembered it all, maybe not, maybe she’d gone on some site and found our family, Your Ancestry or Remember When? or however they’re called. I can imagine Richie encouraging her that way, gently telling her to do a thorough job, his partic-ness meeting hers, telling her to remember that she and me weren’t like him or the Yanks, orphans. The stickers made me feel like I’d come out of a coma, or awoken as poet-y Trish would say, and things were dropping into place in their own good time. So that was how the garden looked at Merriman Rise in 1958, with the swing (I think I could just about remember it) and the cold-frame (I couldn’t). And that dog, more Georgie’s than mine, less hers than dad’s, called Sputnik (I didn’t remember) not Dusty (I did but he was two dogs and four pages later). Comical effort, Sputnik, mongrel, a Heinz 57 job as dad said, well, they all were, though Dusty was almost sort of a Border collie, sharp muzzle like they have, like I think they have, a sweetie he was. As for dad’s shapeless wonders, Georgie was right, I counted five in those home photos before I was three pages in.
It was good to get the holidays lined up. So Rhyl was 1960 not 1961, which was Dawlish which I thought was 1964 but that was Majorca, how could I have forgotten the year for that? Big to-do, injections and new shorts and cozzies and the passport rigmarole and Georgie and me giggling at the photographers’ and mum hissing what-for at us and us almost behaving and then Georgie whispering shouldn’t there be an aspidistra behind us? and both of us in a heap again. Shame the photos can’t show all of that instead of the four of us looking awkward outside that hotel, Mimosa, the sticker says, Cas Catala, or mum looking petrified with the sea-water round her ankles, or me and Georgie in those shorts, mine stripes, hers plaid-y, mind you, we thought we were the goods, and Georgie was, or nearly, already getting a feel of what was what, boys trailing after her, getting their eyeful, so much so that mum gave them a piece of her mind once, I remember that, then rooted in her bag for a towel and threw it over sis. Big dark thumping silence from Georgie after that and I was meant to take her part, solidarity, unspoken, but I thought it was funny, plus I was probably jealous that I wasn’t old enough to be almost the goods in the way she almost was, so I got the mardy treatment from her too, a good couple of days it lasted. Dad was oblivious to it all, of course. Spent a lot of his time trying to perfect that thing where you pour wine from a tight spout onto the bridge of your nose and it runs down and you push out your lower lip and catch it, all the folk in the bodega egging him on, local regulars, those pop-up holiday pals you always get, specially in pubs, ruined three shirts he did, I remember that, and I remember the hotel manageress sucking her teeth, eyes like saucers, and gesturing that the laundry’d have the devil’s own job with them.
At least the shapeless wonders were nowhere to be seen at Rhyl or Dawlish or Cas Catala. But they were back on him with a vengeance for all the Christmases, even with stars and reindeer in 1967 (‘Larkspur Road, just moved’ said Georgie’s sticker) and we were into colour by then so they looked even more gruesome. A moment of dad-madness, that camera, I remember, with mum going on about how the cost of it would put us on the parish. Then the work photos started popping up among the gardens and dogs and tinsel, headed by a close-up of an invoice, which seemed all odd and modern, the kind of thing someone would get it in the neck for wasting film on back then but at least saved Georgie a sticker. Wm Mostyn, Electrics and Mechanics and the Larkspur Road address and the number of our first phone without a party line. Electrics and Mechanics. Mum, that would have been. Dad would’ve been happy with Car or Lights up the Spout? I’ll sort it. Then a big house the sticker says was out Church Stretton way, 1968 (Georgie must have done some proper digging, or Richie) and dad by a ladder with a jazzy-coloured shapeless in full sail, must’ve blown his overalls apart. He got a lot of work like that, I remember, old mansions in need of rewiring, new monstrosities where he had to go from scratch, always broke his heart that he couldn’t get in on the council estate scene but big firms had the dibs there. Similar snap for Monmouth, same year, only the shapeless was bright green and the sticker said ‘Family excursion’, so he must have been doing a job near Uncle Dai and Auntie Eva and we all piled down together. That would have been not long before Georgie left home with her secretarials and got that job at Carterton. No idea why he had work photos taken, in situ as our kid of a manager would say, unless someone told him it’d be good to build up a stock and show them round like you’d have a website now. I can just imagine how flummoxed he’d be confronted with a website, he was impressed from the off that his nibs knew his way round personal computers when we got that first one, 1984 or 5, must have been. Commodore was it? Apple? He’d ask his nibs to go through something, whatever computers could do back then, and just stare while he did it. Yes, I’d say someone told dad to get a bunch of photos round him, ‘Me and my work’, probably a bloke in a pub, treated drinking pals like Moses with his tablets, he did.
I went to turn the next page having a quiet bet with myself. A Fairisle shapeless coming up? Something in manky yellow? But two pages stuck together and as I was about to run my finger down the edge the phone rang and I dropped the album on a chair and it was his nibs saying he’d be back later than usual because the head coach had some news about a change of ground for their lot and other teams that had been on the cards for ages and he wanted to talk it through. When I got back the pages had unstuck themselves and were open on the chair. Four photos over the both of them but I only saw one, a pub bar with a bunch of faces in the background and two to the fore: Seven Stars, the sticker said, New Year’s 1969, Dad and his apprentice, Alex?? It was the only sticker in the whole album that was short on firm detail. Two questions marks must have meant Georgie was proper flummoxed. But it didn’t matter. I knew. After all this time, I remembered with knobs on.
I stood stock still and sipped at my tea. Lukewarm by then and I’d usually pop it in the microwave but I didn’t bother, I hardly noticed. Then I got my coat and went out for a walk that got longer each time I thought of turning back, all round the estate and up to the by-pass, along the cycle-paths and through the little short-cuts. I remembered that the nice new deli woman lived somewhere near, on the part of the estate that’s all wild flowers, Trefoil Close, Willowherb Rise and such and I was pretty sure she was on Bluebell whatever it is and I know she’s got one of those Smart cars so I thought, find Bluebell and a lemony shoebox-y car and I could call in but then I thought, no, she told me she always signs up for weekends to fill the time, hubby’s away a lot, metals rep or something, one son in Carlisle, another at uni, daughter in the Signals or maybe that’s the Carlisle son, still, it’d be nice to have a cup and a chat with her sometime, I’ll ask her when we’re not having to hunt the aisles for something’s flaming context. So when I felt I had to turn back, when I pictured the last of my tea all cold and scummy in the cup, I went round by the playing fields and watched the kids. Mainly toddlers with at least one parent, a rare old time on the swings, or primary kids on the climbing frames. But some were older, getting on for the age I’d have been when dad watched the birdie in the Seven Stars on New Year’s.
Alex Kinsella, his apprentice. With dad about, what, four, five months by then? Two considerations brought him on the scene. Mum’s words, two considerations, and sure as eggs it was mum’s notion and she wouldn’t back down till dad saw the sense of it, which he soon did. For one, he wasn’t getting any younger and for two, wasn’t there some grant or such he could get for training a lad up? (Of course there was: she’d done her homework.) Perhaps the idea was that any lad would sort of take over and dad would become less pressed, the side partner but still senior on the invoices, and yes, Mostyn and Kinsella would have had a ring to it, only it turned out it wouldn’t be Alex, he devilled off a few months after that Seven Stars photo and dad soldiered on alone but with smaller local jobs, enough to see him through and not so far to travel, well, the big houses were drying up smartly by then though he did get a lot of flat conversion stuff, steady earners, and some pals helped him out on the car side, cash in hand, they weren’t as crackers about rules and regs back then. Actually it was May 1969 when Alex went. Long enough before my school exams that I was able to concentrate. I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Scouser, Alex, though you’d have been forgiven for thinking he was a bloke with a Scouse part in a play or on telly and couldn’t get it quite natural. Overdid it, too many ‘fabs’ and ‘gears’ and all that had gone out by then, it wasn’t the Mersey Sound any more, it wasn’t the start of the decade, the Beatles were getting a bit strange, I bought that White Album and dad said, waste of money as he’d done for years to Georgie and me but this time I mainly agreed though I’d never say it, well, you wouldn’t, parents and kids, the unwritten rule, ‘Honey Pie’ was nice, though, and ‘Blackbird’, and George’s ‘Weepy Guitar’ or whatever its full name is got me weeping along with it but as for stuff like ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, best to stay sat at the back, Ringo. And of course I can’t listen to ‘Dear Prudence.’
But Alex traded on all of that and lots of folk still loved the Beatles enough that he did all right with the girls as far as dad’s hints about it went, elliptical intimations his nibs would call them and maybe one day one or two such will surface in a Trish poem. The girls. His own age or round about. Which he bloody well should have stuck with. Maybe one or two of them could have tried drumming some with-it dress sense into him for when he was clocked off and in civvies. Maybe some of them did but I think he was pushing the Scouse thing again, the Beatles, how they looked around the time of ‘Penny Lane’, and anyway Carnaby Street was still coining it then, the Regency look, the idea that all oldies were natty dressers. So if he came round or went out with us, and it happened a fair bit thanks to mum the clucking hen, poor lad far from home, square meals needed, he looked like a mini-version of how dad’s dad must have turned himself out for his courting days. With dad’s fatal weakness thrown in, too, though Alex’s shapeless wonders at least looked like they might have had some design to them once. And as I stood and watched the kids on the fields, I realised. I pictured the one he was wearing three nights before, there in the shadows at the side of that grim old hall. Positively spruce, what I could see of it. Of him. Because it was him, sidling back through time, standing, waiting. And waiting when I got off the bus and got my Olympic gold racing for the house. Loved the waiting, Alex did, loved his shadows. Loved that he just knew I’d never say.
I took it slow from the playing fields back to home, thinking, if I can just run it all through before I get to the front door, maybe it’ll all be gone, done like a dose of salts by the time I’m washing my cup and starting to think about our tea. Daft hope for something that’s been biding its time but you hang onto things like that, don’t you, like when you’re a kid playing hop-skip and thinking if I miss the cracks in the pavement I won’t die. So I kept hoping as I left the kids further and further behind because I couldn’t not.
All please-and-thank-you Alex was when he came for a meal or met up with us wherever it was, the Legion or a pub where I could be parked with a Vimto in what they called a children’s room, honestly, some of the other kids I passed my evenings with, you’d shudder. I was at that odd age, I suppose, too old to go out on my own, too young to stay in alone of a night, wouldn’t have been so bad if Georgie had still been at home but then nothing would’ve. I went over to friends but their folks were much the same, none too happy at the idea of girls unwatched of an evening and as for staying over, well, you can imagine all that was stacked up against that, school nights, other stuff on at weekends, the faff of arrangements and a lot of my friends’ folks either didn’t have a car or their dads were out or back at some ungodly hour, like mine often was, so it would have been all too difficult for pick-ups and drop-offs. So if we were going out I could go over to a friend’s for an hour or so but then I had to be back and scrubbed up for the Legion and the Vimto. I was at a stuck age in a stuck time, you might say, no wriggle room as our kid of a manager declares if you ask why a display has to be right here and not somewhere where folk don’t have to dance round it when they’re in a rush.
Always helped me with the wash-up, Alex, if he had a meal with us, always ferrying Vimtos or lemonades to me in those smelly pub rooms. That’s how they start, I suppose, taking chances, feeling out how much time they have, figuring how it could be stretched a bit more and a bit more. Finding out stuff, too, like once in some pub when he came in with yet another awful Vimto I asked if they had Coca-Cola, forlorn hope but I wanted to show I wasn’t keen to end up made of cheap pop and he twinkled and said, Coca-Cola? Ooh, Prudence, Prudence, you’re not in Majorca now and I’d never mentioned that holiday to him, I’d mentioned nothing but he must have done some nosing when he was with dad and not only about Majorca, it turned out, he had all sorts up his sleeve, my birthday, how I used to go a bundle on tee-bar sandals when I was a kid, that I’d bought the White Album. I could have throttled him then, in that pub room because after he’d gone the other kids fell about thinking my name was Prudence.
He started early with that name. I’d lay the table for the evening meal and go upstairs to wash my hands and he wouldn’t be there when I went up but he would be when I came down, it was like he knew, like he’d been watching the house for a bit of movement at the landing window and made his guess and rang the doorbell. So when I came down it was mum with well, look who’s called, like she couldn’t have known, like she hadn’t made enough for four, and he’d twinkle and say, ah, dear Prudence, and stretch out the ‘dear’ like a sarky rhyme for sneer.
Full of chat he was during the meal, work things with dad, who clearly thought mum’s apprentice idea had paid off in spades, compliments galore on the food for mum who needless to say thought he was the bee’s knees from the off. Not so full of chat when he was with me for the wash-up, not at the start anyway. Made out like he’d been struck shy which wouldn’t have fooled anyone and shouldn’t have fooled me but what could I do one way or the other? There I was, washing up, an agreed chore like with a thousand other kids at that time, like you’d get a contract and write where it says ‘your signature here’. I could hear mum and dad in the living room, dad riffling the paper or faffing with the telly though mum would say, honestly, Will, not with a visitor, and then her tapping and clinking, fetching the Drambuie or the Tia Maria or the Double Diamond out from that tiny little almost posh bar they’d put in the corner of the room because she said it reminded her of the one in the corner of the dining-room at that hotel in Dawlish. And Alex on the drying up, real slow, five goings-over with each thing till you could see your face in it, even the ones you couldn’t have anyway.
School, he started with on his first visit, how’s all that, then? I said what I liked and what I didn’t and he said that was just like he was, Geography, loved it, French, for the birds, Art, what was the point? Everything an agreement, like Rachel and the way she used to drive Chris mad sometimes when he’d be trying to talk and she’d repeat the last few words of all he said. Then there was an outing to one of dad’s awful watering-holes and in came the Vimto with some crack about how budding geographers needed a clear head and this stuff would sort me out. Next time he was round and I found myself becoming Prudence, it was school again and I immediately thought of the science lessons, the labs, all that writing down, what we did, what we observed, what we concluded. Method and evidence. Try it now, I told myself. So when he asked how the studies were going I said, thinking about it, if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s Geography, and he said that could have been him speaking, what do you need to know beyond your own world and your own place in it? I love Art, though, I said and he said Art was gear and if there was one thing he loved it was a good painting, like the ones you saw in Woolworth’s, a Spanish donkey or a woman with a jug on her head. I had it in mind to say I love Maths and I hate it but what further proof did I need of his caper?
Then on the next expedition to a pub he came bearing the sacred Vimto and saying something about it was for the dusky lady’s jug, which made one of the other kids ask if he was mental and he said, no, just in love and they giggled and one pointed at me and said, Christ, not with her? and he just twinkled and vanished and left me to face them, if I’d said Christ out loud in public it would have been mum’s hand at the back of my head.
Same with boys. So who do you fancy? he said at our first wash-up, making long, long work of a side-plate and I’d say no-one and he flicked my arm with the cloth and said, ah, go on, bet you do. Next time I had someone at the ready, well, two people in one, Neil Hughes a couple of years above me who was really nice and good at sport and Graham Bentley who was in my year and a whiz at Art, so I mixed them together but I didn’t give a name, I thought it best not to. But even as I was talking about him, well, them as him, I thought I might have been saying too much and I was right or I guessed I was, well, I was sure I was from the way that he reacted. A look like thunder then like dismay and then kind of sorrowful. He could have been Mrs Appleby, our sort of head of girls, the one you were meant to go to if you were having private problems, not that they were private for long, mouth like Blackpool Tunnel she had. Now, he says, I was just funning when I asked you before, but, Prudence, you’re far too young, there’ll be time enough for all that, boys and such, and won’t you know it. Then it was like he shut his face up and the thunder vanished with the rest and he twinkled and said, I won’t breathe a word and nodded his head back towards the living-room, where the paper was rattling and the glasses were tinkling their way out from behind the bar. And it was like mum and dad were twenty miles away, even though I could hear them, and each time after, when he took as long as God’s beard with the crockery, it was like they were another twenty miles off again.
I can see now. I can see it’s all grist to the mill. You say you like this and then say you don’t, you say you fancy a boy and then say you don’t, you say anything at all, and they’ll say, well, that’s what she told me, her being all butter-wouldn’t-melt, playing games, leading on.
And of course the other stuff started early and kept pace with the rest. Tickle, tickle, Prudence, he’d say, and I knew we were done with just words. The flick of the cloth became a flick across the chest which became a hand on the arm which became a nudge of the leg which finally became a finger. Now Prudence, don’t you be thinking about the other boys. But it wasn’t particular boys he meant, not even the boys in my year or our street, no, he was pushing the very idea of them into the shadows, getting himself out front. Like I say, he loved his shadows. And the finger would travel and soon enough a mate joined it. Tickle, tickle. I remembered when Georgie visited one time, just after she’d met Richie, and I overheard her and mum having a good old giggle over what Richie said about how the blokes on the base would try it on with the local girls (‘But not him’ Georgie said, more than once) and about how, in Richie’s words, the blokes had Roman hands and Russian fingers. Alex’s roamed and rushed, all right. It probably excited him, the notion of mum and dad only a couple of doors away, but then again he was a fast worker all round, because one time mum came in for something and his hand was back round the cloth round a saucer in a trice.
First time I was struck all of a heap and stop it, stop it was on the tip of my tongue but it never came out and I tried to move away but he moved too and I moved again but I could only do it so much because after that I’d have had to climb onto the draining-board. Same game the times after and he’d keep the chat going and somehow so would I because I thought, maybe there’ll be a last question and I’ll give the last right answer and he’ll just stop. Or maybe he’ll think I can’t feel him, that I’m making like there’s not enough for him to be felt, and he’ll throw down the cloth and go in and tell mum and dad, lovely meal, thanks ever so, but I have to go and he’ll tell his mates that his gaffer’s daughter’s a real ice maiden and get roaming and rushing elsewhere. But saying stop would have stopped nothing. I tried thinking of Neil Hughes and how I wouldn’t mind him doing all that but then I thought, no, I don’t want anyone doing that, not just yet, maybe not ever. I asked mum if I could wear my jeans for the next visit but she said not on your nelly, guests for a meal means doing things properly. I thought of speaking to Mrs Appleby but that would have meant a whole school hooting and falling about like the kids in that smelly room when he called me Prudence.
So I just stood there. God help me, I just did. And it was a blessed relief any time a visit coincided with Georgie coming home for a day or two off. Those times he’d give the lot a quick spit and polish and be out of the kitchen before you could say, well, Woolworth’s donkey. Maybe he thought at least there’s me to fall back on if no headway was forthcoming with her, which there wouldn’t be, because quite apart from the fact of Richie we were all in the hall one time saying our goodnights to Alex and Georgie turned away behind mum and dad and caught my eye and rolled hers. And then she inevitably brought Richie over and dad must have told Alex and invited him too but then he reported back and it was, sorry, no show from the lad this time, he says an old friend’s passing through. But that didn’t throw him for other visits. Finally he got his finger in. Tickle, tickle. A dead awkward angle and I didn’t help by not moving. Some might call it standing your ground, not giving him the satisfaction of a response, but it was nothing to do with thinking, it wasn’t another school lab experiment. How can you think when you’re frozen and scared and all alone? When the nearest to thought you can get is to feel that it must be happening to someone else a million miles away and somehow it’s got mixed up with you right there with a spoon in your hand? Scraped his bloody nail getting in and his nails weren’t like a film star’s, that’s for sure, I’d have thought mum would have noticed and had a quiet word with dad about that but maybe she thought, mucky nails, honest toil and let it go. Stung like billy-o, it did. No, more than that. You can draw a sting and the red goes. It was like he’d emptied me out and that finger was the whole size of me. Then there was mum’s voice in the hall and she was opening and closing the cabinet with the phone on top and saying, well if it isn’t here I’m blessed if I know where it would be. Out comes the finger and he dunks it in the suds like I was dirt on it. That’s it then, I thought, hoped, when I came back to myself, he’s hit his target for now, please God forever. Silly sod, me. But in fact he didn’t turn up for a while after that, nor at the pubs, and mum and dad didn’t mind overmuch because there was Mr. O’Byrne to think about.
I could say it was Mr O’Byrne’s fault, what happened after, and I did think it at the time, but even then I knew it was daft. The O’Byrnes lived across the street and along a bit and Mr O’Byrne had a clerical job but he was a dab hand at all sorts and got to helping dad out with the car repairs. A miracle-worker, dad called him, on account of being round there one day and watching him take a mantel-clock to complete bits, even the gilt off the casing, which of course was dad all over, his love of exaggeration, but still, everything came out and was arranged perfectly on a newspaper and Mr O’Byrne cleaned and oiled each bit like you’d bathe a baby (dad again) and put it all back together sweet as a nut. Not one piece left over, not a screw or spring, which in dad’s view separated Mr O’Byrne from every other fiddler and fettler on the planet, himself included. Dad said he was a cut above, that he had a saint’s touch, which was more than exaggeration, actually a bit poetical for him, but that was perhaps the result of exposure to Mr O’Byrne’s patter, the old blarney. If he came round and saw me, he’d start on with some old Irish song ‘Saint Theresa of the Roses’, only he’d change it to Helena, or ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, which he never sang all the way through except the once, him and dad coming back from the pub one summer’s night, everyone’s windows open, till Mrs O’Byrne collared him at their garden gate with ‘I’ll be moving ye through the fair in a box, ye goon.’ Lovely voice, he had, though not for gone eleven of a weeknight in the street. Mrs O’Byrne made the loveliest deep pancakes, hot cakes she called them, and insisted we all call her Caitlin. Older than mum and dad, they were, and I think they had one of each but they’d left home an age before.
Then Mr O’Byrne retired and out of the blue they were packing up. Going home as Caitlin put it. Westport, home was, County Mayo. They kept in touch, though, and mum and dad said more than once that a holiday over there was on the cards. But then it wasn’t because Caitlin phoned one night sometime after Alex had fetched up on the scene and the next thing was that mum and dad were dusting off their mourning wear and arranging for me to be farmed out to Mrs Pooley, a widow two houses down. Very end of April 1969, that was, and mum and dad had decided that it wouldn’t be seemly just to go for Mr O’B’s funeral and shoot straight back so I suppose you could say that they got an Irish holiday of sorts. Anyway, a week they were gone, and it was half-way through the week, the Spring bank holiday Monday, in fact, that I remembered I didn’t have my gym kit for next day. The house was all locked up but I had a key. Mrs Pooley offered to come back with me, like it was a hundred miles away, but she probably had visions of me waltzing back with the front door still wide open. Bless her. I could have said yes.
And I could say it was my gym kit’s fault. Well, it could have helped by being where I thought it was, or in the second most likely place, or third or fourth. But what am I saying except it was my fault really? Hark at me, pinning it on myself. That’s all part and parcel, though, isn’t it? You think it’s all down to you. If you’d been here not there, if such-and-such hadn’t happened then but a bit before or a bit after. But it isn’t all that, it’s what Richie calls it, dumb luck. Anyway, I wasn’t all that untidy then, unlike Georgie, who created clothes-bombs all over the place, so you’d think things were simpler now she’d gone. But the kit wasn’t in its usual drawer or in the one above or the one to the side or the wardrobe. By then I was into the where-did-you-last-see-it? bit where you try and think clearly but know that from then on you’ll just go dipping in any old place. I wondered if mum had put it in with some of her stuff by mistake, which wasn’t likely, and I wasn’t keen on riffling through her smalls and hangers but I gave it a go. No joy, of course, though at least I had enough presence of mind to get her things looking as I’d found them.
I should have looked in the scullery soon as I came in because that’s where mum kept the stuff-for-the-iron basket but I was sure as sure the kit was ready and put away because mum had got me into the way of ironing my school stuff and I was convinced I had. I nearly didn’t look there, I was heading for the door with some lame excuse forming for Miss Aldridge, our tartar of a PE teacher, when ‘scullery’ popped into my head and chased out the realisation that I’d left the front door ajar in my rush, so instead of shutting it I nipped round the corner of the kitchen door and sure enough there was a pile of stuff in the ironing basket, well, you couldn’t blame mum, all the preparations for Ireland, she’d had her hands full and decided that whatever was in the basket would keep. Not too much in there but I could see an arm of my gym-blouse hanging out and I found the skirt just under. My pumps were lined up in the hall so I suppose at some point I must have told myself to remember to take my kit to Mrs Pooley’s but anyway, job done at last, and I remember having a quick look through the living-room window as I headed for the front door and thinking, oh, sun’s going, could be rain but it’s only a short sprint to Mrs P’s if it comes on. And I remember I’d put all the kit in a Mac Fisheries bag, the only one I could find, and it didn’t smell of fish at all but the very name made you think it would, or should, but again, I thought, no distance to Mrs P’s, she’ll have a better bag because she swore by that new Tesco’s that had opened near us.
Late afternoon it was by then, going on five, and I thought, any minute now I’ll see Mrs P at the front door checking all was well. But she’d probably gone out in her garden when I said I’d be ok, especially if this was the last of the sun, toast of the street her garden was, neighbours helped when they could, dad sorted a rockery for her. Funny what you remember. Funny what glues itself to a time and a place.
When the cravat gentlemen in Trish’s group read about Dauntless Dougie, his uncle or godfather, there was one bit where he said Dougie could throw his cassock over his head, shoot his cuffs and scoop up his prayer book in one unbroken move. Like a running tide, he said the man was. That was pretty much the way of it when I checked I had the house keys and reached to pull open the front door – the door pushed wide, me knocked off balance, the Mac Fisheries bag flying, the door shut, my kit on the floor, his voice saying, ah, thought you’d dress up special for me, nice, nice, me dragged along the living-room carpet kicking and pummelling, then his hand on my face, other hand clamping my legs, my head banging against the corner of the little bar, stuff clinking and rattling, him pulling and grunting, me trying to lift and punch, his hand down double-hard on my mouth, the chill where my knickers had been, his knees squashing the inside of my legs, me with no help in the world, him sort of in, tears in my eyes and my stomach on fire, him in for certain, me bone dry, his johnny like rubber cable, me splitting in bits, him slobbering, me scared and mad and scared and mad and his hand like a vice but me still trying to get the screams out, for mum, for dad, for Georgie, still making their names against his bony fingers, his long man-cry like I’d actually been one big bloody disappointment, the weight off, the no-knickers chill again, my eyes tight shut, the sound of stumbling, something bumped into, a quick ‘oh, fuck me’, the front door opened and slammed.
I lay there for an age. All I could think of was how disgraceful it was, me with my knickers down in our living-room, me almost damaging the little bar that mum had set her heart on ever since she saw the spit of it in the corner of the dining-room at that hotel in Dawlish. Then I got up and, slow as a snail, moved but couldn’t feel myself, watched but couldn’t feel my hands as they got me together, folded my gym stuff and put it back in the Mac Fisheries bag, checked that nothing was broken in the little bar. Watched but couldn’t feel my feet as they got me from here to there, smoothed down the pile of the carpet, got me round to what Alex had stumbled into, the hall cabinet. Watched but couldn’t feel my hands again as they pushed it back against the wall and put the phone right and checked that all was tidy inside, as first one hand then the other went to the back of my head where it had hit the corner of the bar. Waited, as you might say, for them to tell me it was wet there, sticky, or a bruise was starting. Nothing, my hands said. But there could have been everything. How would I know with feeling gone? Of course I checked and re-checked a score of times later, angled my hand-mirror in front of the mirror in the room Mrs P had put me in. Just a bit of tenderness and a throbbing that was gone by the night. That was luck at least. Thank God for thick hair.
Like I thought, Mrs P was in her garden when I got back. I lifted the bag and managed a thumbs-up and she called that there were some Tesco bags behind the kitchen door if I wanted something roomier. I sort of nodded because blood was on my mind again and I should have checked earlier but I just wanted to get away from the house and a few seconds later I was sat on the edge of her bath with my knickers off and loo roll at the ready. I hadn’t felt anything but then I wouldn’t have, running back to beat the band, to get in safe at Mrs P’s before my legs gave way. A mercy that there was just spotting, well, I say, just, there was one ugly dark patch but at least it wasn’t a river, still, that was those knickers gone for a burton so I rolled them up tight as tight and put them in the Mac Fisheries bag to get rid of on the way to school. Mrs P called up that she was just popping to see Mrs Maidment, another lonely lady, widow for longer than Mrs P, a bit younger too, according to mum, but Mrs P was a spring chicken compared to Mrs M which was why she looked in now and then to see if there was anything Mrs M wanted. Steak and kidney pie and veg when she got back, she called, so could I set the table?
I got myself sorted as best I could and went to sit on the bed. Finding things weren’t a calamity down there started to bring feeling back properly. And thinking. Of course he knew mum and dad were away. Dad would have genned him up on their current jobs and probably let slip that I wouldn’t be going. At a neighbour’s, I could hear him saying in his airy, hail-fellow way, few doors down, and just as well – what’s the betting our Helen’ll have to nip back for something? Her own head, as like as not.
And so he’d been waiting, maybe all weekend, blending in like some spy, watching like he seemed to watch the landing window when he came round for meals. Ah, there she goes, I imagined him saying at those times, there’s my Prudence on the landing, and his ring of the bell would be full of what I’d had dished out that afternoon.
Downstairs I laid the table extra-neat like that was something I could put between me and the afternoon. I thought of some of the girls in my class, old campaigners they were, even at that age, talking at lunchtimes about when they’d had it and who with. I’d say sometimes they’d got caught like me but they were fly beyond their years and I’ll bet they turned it around, took control. I tried to imagine myself talking to myself that way, tricking myself into the cool and easy, oh yes, me too. Tried to place all that alongside the neatness of the knives and forks, the glasses and the squash, another bit of distance. I knew it wouldn’t work but it kept my mind busy. Well, they got exactly what they wanted, those girls, which wasn’t the sharp corner of a bar and bloody knickers in a Mac Fisheries bag.
Marathon tomorrow, is it? Mrs P asked when we were eating and I smiled and said long jump and sprints, weather permitting. She started on about what they had to wear when she was a girl, PT they called it, near enough boots and overcoat compared to what girls could wear now. But netball was her favourite, she said, and she wasn’t half bad though she said it herself. Nifty at tennis, too, fancied herself as another Helen Wills Moody, whoever she was. I was glad she was off on one. All I had to do was nod now and then and say, yes, lovely pie. The rest of the time I was like when the telly shut down at night and you just had that high-pitched noise. Just at one point I wondered if I’d got everything as it should be in the hall cabinet. But that was it.
I knew exactly what he was banking on and I didn’t disappoint. I told no-one. By the time mum and dad came back I’d pieced myself together, so to speak, as the girl they’d said goodbye to. It was a sight harder back then, out and saying, not like with the girls today though it costs them dear enough, poor scraps. I suppose I imagined the worst. Dad was out of the question, though I loved him a bundle and I’d called for him with the others against that bony hand. Mum would be tender and horrified but maybe the horror wouldn’t all go where it should. I could imagine her reminding me at some point of the time I’d wanted to wear jeans for an Alex meal, seeing that in a new light. Oh, yes, wants to show off what’s coming, wants to be like big sis. Maybe a score of other little things would add themselves to that and bring her to a verdict. I’d been hurt but I’d been stupid and the stupid trumped the hurt. Plus there’d be, now don’t you tell a soul, which would be all about shame and I felt that as it was, plenty of it, far more than spots on a pair of knickers. Georgie would have been the best bet in other circumstances but she was gone, she wasn’t in my world any more, she was all her job and Richie and the big life. And anyway, she might have taken her own version of mum’s line, which, God knows, I’ve taken enough with Rachel. Giving off vibes, they say now, though she’d have had her own words. Were you trying something on without knowing it, Helen? Making out something you hadn’t a clue you were making out? What could I have said to that? What are you supposed to do? Lock yourself away? And anyway, I wasn’t, I know I wasn’t. I didn’t ask for him to be at the dishcloth. I didn’t beg for the finger. So yes, I imagined the worst, but maybe too that was a way of protecting myself from what I felt I just couldn’t do anyway. Say it out loud. Find the words that didn’t in any way make me sound like a tease or a scrubber. I wondered what Alex was imagining. Nothing much, I guessed, except that he’d scored but I was a bit of a crap shag so he’d have to gild the lily when he and his mates got into bragging.
Chris used to have this daft little game with his soldiers. For ages there was a hole in the hallway skirting board round where a heating-pipe came down. His nibs finally sorted it but till then Chris used to set up his battles there, his offensives, and the side that lost a soldier down the hole lost the whole war. Except that he made sure he never lost one because it was all about symbolism, notional loss, his words, he’d swallowed his dictionary by then. So a soldier’s head over the hole meant peril for that side but shoulders over meant defeat and no messing. One time, though, a soldier landed half-and-half, like that van on the cliff at the end of The Italian Job. I think I was outside, pruning or some such. Easy-peasy just to slide the soldier back gently by its feet or that funny little plastic stand they all had, and that’s just what Chris’d been about to do, he told me, when Rachel comes tripping down the stairs, sees what’s what, rushes over and flicks it down the hole. He didn’t get in a strop with her, he didn’t cry. I’ve never known a child to cotton on so quick about satisfaction and how not to give it. But there it was, gone. I think that’s what I did with that afternoon, as time passed, as another term went by and we sprinted and high-jumped and took our exams. Eased the soldier to halfway over the hole, looked at it and flicked it to its death. As for Alex, he didn’t turn up for work half the time after mum and dad got back, maybe more than half, and dad got narked and mum got anxious and then he phoned with a tale about some family illness, all looking pretty bad, and vamoosed.
By the time I’d finished thinking it all through I found I’d gone past our house and was on the main road, nearly at my bus stop. That put the wind up me, not so much missing our house as remembering how I’d felt the night of the writers’ meeting, after the drink with Trish, when I’d stepped off the bus and straight into whatever wanted to get me. No, not whatever, no point pussyfooting. Mr Patience. I didn’t dash back to the house like I had that night but I took it pretty smartish. In the living room I saw the album exactly as I’d left it only now I wouldn’t have been surprised if the sticker under that photo from the Seven Stars had changed itself to New Year’s 1969, Dad and his apprentice, Alex Kinsella, tickle, tickle. But I didn’t look, I just took my cup through to the kitchen and chucked out the last of tea and washed it and turned it upside down on the drainer and stared at it.
That bit of fancy about the sticker turned my thoughts another way. Mrs Barton had brought the album round yesterday. I don’t know the ins and outs of international post. Stuff from Georgie just arrives when it arrives, like mine to her, but let’s say the album reached this country by Wednesday and then hung about a bit. Wednesday night was the writers’ meeting, Wednesday night was the retro bloke at the side of the hall with his greyish shapeless effort and his face in the gloaming. Carnaby Alex come back from the mists in the hold of a plane. And Carnaby Alex having a savage go at my field and my church before I got to them that same night, gouging, blizzarding, tearing down the ivy, stripping off the leaves till there was just the one clump to hide that terrified little bird.
If anyone had told me a story like that before I’d have said God help us, you’re proper gone out. But it made sense to me right then, staring down at the drainer, at the maker’s doo-dad on the bottom of the cup. And it seemed to me that, though I could never have known it, he was part of why I’d found my world in the first place, my field and its butterfly snow and my old church with its wall and its trees, and why I’d needed to. And now he’d done for them and had taken about as long over it as he had over me with his hands and his grunting and his cable-rubber johnny. I was half way through thinking, well, at least he used one but I scotched that. I wasn’t giving him everything.
Of a sudden there’s his nibs in the kitchen and just in? he asks and I realise I’ve still got my coat on. He starts on about his chat with the head coach, the new ground for their team, how the coach is all for it but he has his doubts now he knows which one it is, near the valley on the far side of town, low-level, possible flood-risk, and anyway he’s sure he read somewhere that the conservation bods were bidding to have it zoned off to encourage this and that to come there, which would make sense since that stretch of valley’s wild enough and without thinking I start to talk, so for a bit the kitchen’s full of the cons about the new ground and the Seven Stars on New Year’s Day 1969 and Alex’s first couple of meals with us and how he hopped to it with the wash-up without being asked. And then his nibs stopped and let me talk how I hadn’t meant to except I’d been through it all to myself round to the playing fields and past our house and nearly down to the bus stop where he’d been waiting on Wednesday night, Carnaby Alex, having skedaddled there after the writers’ do had broken up and while Trish and me were raising our first glass in the bar, and since I’d been through it all to myself I just couldn’t stuff it back into my mind unsaid or deep in my heart like some of those posh debs who get all deceived and horrified in my murder mysteries.
Why didn’t you tell me all this before? He didn’t say that, fair play to him. Instead he put the kettle on and then started to unbutton my coat with one hand and stroke my arm with the other till, bless him, he stepped back like he suddenly thought he was doing what he shouldn’t and I started blinking, harder and harder the more my eyes stung, and I got hold of his hand and guided it back to the buttons still waiting. That made for a complete silence till I said about the hole round the heating pipe and Chris’s game of soldiers, which he nodded at, and how Rachel had put the kibosh on it that one time, which he shook his head at, and how I’d copied her if he saw what I meant and done it pretty bloody well, too, till the album and the Seven Stars photo knocking the breath out of me like the front door had that afternoon. So I suppose I answered what he didn’t ask.
When he’d got me settled with a tea at the kitchen table he went through to the hall. I heard him talking to the head coach, cancelling what was apparently meant as a surprise for me that evening, a meal with the coach and his wife at that pub they’ve just reopened near the farm shop, top chef, rave reviews. I got myself ready to start feeling bad but then realised I didn’t have to, I’d done all that kind of feeling, that game was played out. It was nice, though, to hear him say how about next Saturday evening instead and it must have been all right because he said good good good in that quick way he has which used to get on Rachel’s nerves and of course he’d add another ‘good’ each time she complained. Down goes the phone and I check to see if there’s another tea in the pot for him but he doesn’t come back and I’ll bet he’s looking at the album, that photo, and he starts his sort of breathy whistling which always means he’ll be an age with whatever he’s about. So I go drifting, back to Rachel this time. Wondering if something like that ever happened to her and if that explains her rigmarole, get a bloke keen and treat him like dirt. If that’s her way of dealing with it, though, it’s too sad for words because, for one, it’s like she’s getting it all back in her head each time she gives a bloke the push and, for two, she’s probably lost any number of good ‘uns that way, especially if they were like the ones we met. I hope some prime catch sweeps her off her feet, said Georgie’s note, before she can open her mouth. You know your niece a treat, Georgie. She can’t not open it. I should really talk to Rachel. I’m not my mum though they say that’s who daughters always turn into. But not me, not for this. Maybe if I mug up a bit on human-facing management and a few facts about West Hampstead, that’ll get her off guard.
Then his nibs is in the kitchen doorway and Kinsella, you say? he asks and I nod and notice the time on the clock and make to get up, hoping I’ve remembered to defrost those drumsticks but he bends down and gets me back in the chair and tops up my tea and says how about a Chinese? which sounds lovely because the Golden Boat on the main road’s just gone under new management and it’s a hundred times better than before. Good good good, he says and kisses the top of my head and I can feel my eyes come on to stinging even more and he kisses me again and finds the Boat’s menu and puts it by my arm and tells me to take my time. Then he’s off to the phone again and this time it sounds like he’s calling one of his colleagues because it’s pauses and then his hmm-hmm-hmm, like his good good good, so I can tell he’s jotting stuff down.
And I realised something. Not once did I say to him I’d rather try to forget it now because not once did I say it to myself. It’s like whatever the reverse of the law of diminishing returns is, which is another hot catchphrase with our kid of a manager when all he means is some this-week-only dodge from head office didn’t work and their new dodge is double the rubbish, but of course he’d never actually say that because what head office comes up with is holy writ so the fault must lie in another quarter, which is another of his faves. Doubling, yes, let’s call it that, the law of doubling returns. I know you’ll never tell, said every finger of the hand on my face, every grunt, every push. But I told it clear through to myself on my walk, start to finish. I shook his hiding-place loose, you might say. And it fell to bits when I found myself telling his nibs. So I suppose what I’m saying is that, sitting there with the last of the tea, hearing his pauses and hmm-hmms, I proper astonished myself. I didn’t want anything to diminish. Double away, I said to myself, and I raised my cup in a toast. And after that I made a lovely choice from the Boat menu, for him too, well, no choice as such there because I knew he’d say the usual, and I walked through the living room and squeezed his shoulder where he was sat on the sofa with a note-pad and I went to phone in the order and I said, yes, half an hour will be fine, and then, almost without thinking, I phoned Trish.
A one-hour Poirot on the telly that evening and then, just in time, another channel for a full-length Morse. And we make the Chinese last nearly all of it, sitting side by side on the sofa, him squeezing me now and then, taking up my fork hand, which I’d usually get ratty about, say something about, oh yes, and who has to get the covers cleaned? But not this time and he even takes the containers to the kitchen once we’re all done and I can hear him washing them out and that’s love, laugh if you like. I don’t push him about the call to his workmate and he doesn’t say because he’ll tell me in his own time and anyway this is simple and safe, right now, like Mrs Pooley’s house, and I want it to stay as such. And that night he doesn’t mutter or thrash about, he holds me like he used to in the days that turned out to be Rachel coming.
And it’s breakfast all sorted next morning, eggs and toast at the ready when I come into the kitchen. As we’re finishing up he starts rubbing the backs of his hands which always means he’s about to get serious with either DIY or the laptop. So, Kinsella, he says and goes into the living-room and in a bit, sure enough, I can hear the tapping on the keys and those little wind-bell noises that tell you something’s leading somewhere.
About half an hour later, after I’d done the wash up and got myself ready to face the world, he called me to come and sit with him at the living-room table. He had the laptop in front of him and the note-pad at his elbow with a list on it. Business sites, it turned out, Link-this-and-that, Find a Tradesman, most all of them crossed out except for one. He’d got them from his mate, he said, and, ok, he could have found them himself but the mate was more on the commercial insurance side and had them at his fingertips. As I got myself proper comfy he gave me a look that was sort of worried and chuffed together. Then he angled the laptop my way and I saw the name along the top of the screen, Sunlight At Your Service, the one he hadn’t crossed off, and the site was about Port Sunlight, civic amenities in that part of the Wirral, tradesmen and what-have-you. The page he’d got to was a list of electricians in the area. And there he was between a Kinross and a Kinsey. Go on, says his nibs and pushes the mouse my way. So I clicked him.
Well, he’d already been through it himself because he pointed at this and that but mainly he just let me look. So, then. Mr Patience had scuttled back home, near enough, and done alright for himself too because Port Sunlight’s on the posh side. Looked like he’d had his page done professionally or got a son to do it or a grandson because that’s the joke these days, isn’t it, how they’re all born to it while the old ‘uns look on all baffled. Logo very fancy, A and K intertwined with a plug rising up between them like the head of a snake, which said it all. Halfway down was a list of where he’d been for his trade and when, reverse order, and his nibs scrolled it slowly so it was like the credits at the end of a film. Just as well I wasn’t drinking tea when he got to the bottom or I’d have splattered a mouthful all over everywhere. 1968-1969: Lead Technician, William Mostyn, Electrics and Mechanics, Biddulph, Staffordshire. For a moment there I was madder than that afternoon had ever made me. Lead technician was bad enough but putting it before my dad’s name and having the entry there at all, like my poor trusting dad was just a rung on his ladder, that was the old tin lid. I know, tradesfolk have to do it, everyone does and the truth of such lists might be a case of more or less. I’d give anything to see what fairy-tales our kid of a manager smuggled in on his cv. Still and all.
I think that entry decided me. His nibs said nothing, then or after, but that was showing love again, daft though it sounds. He’d found him, he’d sort of brought him to me. Now, as you might say, the man was mine. Probably he’d had to do some scrabbling in his time, who didn’t? but the screen said he’d done all right, maybe wasn’t working at all or not much, because what would he be now, late sixties? easily that. Probably had chaps under him, son or sons, at any rate blokes who worked an honest day and didn’t just clear off after they’d dealt with a kerfuffle in their trousers. You’d hope. No photo of him, thankfully, but an email and phone and house address. Playford Way. Come out to play. Dear Prudence.
Power. That’s what I felt out of nowhere. Never in all this world did I think I’d feel it about that afternoon. And his nibs not saying a word, just putting it in front of me like a box of chocolates with the lid off, that made it all the stronger. No, not power, that’s a bloke’s word. So’s control. Let’s say possibilities, possibilities at my fingers’ ends, arranged like that, no, arrayed, that’d give poeting Trish a run for her money. Because the story isn’t meant to end like this, is it? It’s meant to end with oh, all a long time ago and it was different back then and bit late to be dredging it up, look at the age of you, and anyway, your word against his. Which he might say, probably would, in his older voice, maybe full of years of beer and fags, if I phoned him, or with lots of exclamation marks and dot-dot-dots if I emailed him, or with eyes like razors and a good showing of his tribe round him, wife included, on the door-step at Playford Way. Or maybe not wife included, maybe he’s a widower or divorced two, three times over. A maintenance-man. Or just, I never did, it didn’t happen, you know you, you’re a liar, missus, money is it? You don’t want to come it with me. Prick-tease to end them all, you were.
But all that, it doesn’t matter. In one of those Easter poems I dip into, the devotional ones, the quill-merchant efforts, there’s the line ‘I see you as you stand.’ That’s where it all comes from, they come from, the possibilities, the tingle at the ends of my fingers as you might say. I see him as he stands and he hasn’t a clue I see him, he’s bat-blind. I could be walking up behind him, he wouldn’t know. I could be stepping in front of him in a park. I could be pushing open his front door when someone forgot to close it, one of the grandkids, someone the age I was when it was the Mac Fisheries bag and Mrs Pooley saying PT. Yes. I can choose my time, tomorrow, next week, you name it, to lift the phone or get his nibs to crank up the laptop or shake the travel-rug and check the mileage from here to there. Or all of same. Choice and possibilities. I should write that on a scrap of paper, shove it under our kid of a manager’s nose and say, there you are, Sonny-Jim, this month’s slogan, I’ve worked out my commission. And the smile his nibs gave me when he closed the laptop, it said I know, I see you see him. Person of interest located, as Morse’s Lewis might say. Whatever you want. Whenever you like. Nothing, everything.
Come lunchtime he says, never mind waiting for next Saturday, how about giving that refurbished pub a dry run now? Trish phoned back as we were getting our coats on. She’d already got hold of the motherly sort, who was delighted and said of course, of course I could read at the next meeting, a couple of folk would be away so no problem with a slot.
Any time now Georgie will email his nibs or phone when it’s midnight there and cockcrow here and ask. Did it get there safely? What did I think? All our yesterdays, eh? Famn damilies, as Richie would say. I’ll have to look through it to the end. When I feel able. Or maybe she’ll write, she’s one of the few who still go for letters. That’ll be better. Give me time to work out what I want to say. Because, I mean, after telling myself all through on that walk and telling his nibs, it’s only right that she should know, certainly before he does, with his Carnaby years long gone, jabbing his finger into my face on the doorstep at Playford Way. His old finger now, maybe his arthritic finger, good for not much except, as you might say, tickling the air. But I wouldn’t want Georgie to feel bad, to feel like she’d stirred things up by sending the album. Awoken them. Thanks, Trish. So I’ll be careful. In fact I might not say a dicky bird to her yet. There’ll be time to say it in the best way it could be said. Choice again. Possibilities.
The refurbished pub’s lovely. Tasty savoury biscuits for afters and it turns out they sell them, they sell all sorts, some deal with the farm shop, so I got a packet to take over to Trish’s next Friday night. I’ll have to see what wine our kid of a manager’s pushing at the moment, too, and if it’s anything less than that Vasse I’ll diminish his returns.
Speaking of Trish, when she phoned back she was full of oh, Helen, let me hear it next Friday night, what you’re going to read. A dialogue of trespass, I nearly said, but to be honest I don’t know what it might be. I might not even have anything for Friday night. I’ll need to take my time. It won’t be the whole kit and caboodle, obviously. But maybe something that says without saying, which seems to be what gets a lot of writers in a holy fizz. Elliptical intimations, to pinch his nibs’ phrase. I know I said I didn’t want to write my world down. But maybe, how things are, it could be a way to get it back. Or start to. So something about a field with deep gouges but where snow-butterflies are already dipping about, against the time the ground levels itself up. Or a churchyard with one streak of ivy already on the wall and leaves enough on the trees, and birds enough among them.